SKHS coach/counselor understands how to adjust

Derek Sparks once was one of the most heavily recruited running backs on the West Coast, with visions of playing in the NFL.

But in the 18 years since he graduated from California football power Mater Dei, Sparks has undergone six surgeries and now is a career counselor at South Kitsap High School.

Sparks also is on D.J. Sigurdson’s staff as the running-backs coach for the Wolves and leans heavily on his playing experience when advising students.

“Sports prepare you to be successful in life,” said Sparks, who lives in Seattle with his wife and three daughters. “It allowed me to have a career and a family.”

He has read the stories about former athletes from colleges to the pros who have failed after once their football careers are over.

“Life without an education is pretty harsh,” said Sparks, who earned a business degree at Washington State University. “Once it’s over, you have to do something different. You have to educate yourself.”

Sparks is accustomed to making transitions.

As an adolescent, he dreamed of donning UCLA’s powder-blue and gold. But he had a messy transfer from Montclair Prep, where he played as a junior, to Mater Dei in the fall of 1990.

He alleged the Van Nuys, Calif., school lowered his grades and misrepresented his academic standing to college scouts after he and his cousin, Leland Sparks, left.

Sparks sued Montclair Prep for $40 million just months after graduating from Mater Dei.

The lawsuit was settled out of court, and Sparks was awarded an annuity — terms of the settlement prevented him from disclosing the amount — to be paid throughout his lifetime.

He’s used some of the proceeds to make donations to Mater Dei, his fraternity at WSU and “GAMETIME,” a youth organization based in Seattle that strives to mentor sports activities and provide scholarship opportunities, according to its Web site.

“Football was everything for me and it still is,” he said. “It’s provided a lot of opportunities for me. I was the first person in the history of my family to graduate from college, and to lead.

“When I was growing up, no one ever went anywhere. Everyone stayed in this kind of dead-end town. When I got this gleam of light, I never looked back.”

Sparks chronicled his time at Montclair Prep and other experiences in high school in the 1999 book “Lessons of the Game: The Untold Story of High School Football,” co-written with Stuart K. Robinson.

Sparks said the book doesn’t just focus on sports. He writes about being raised as an only child by a single mother and not knowing his father.

“That ghost haunts you for a long time even when you’re an adult,” he said. “I wondered what was wrong with me and why wasn’t I good enough. I think a lot of young people write me and talk about those non-athletic challenges. I feel blessed I was able to tell that story.”

Sparks was raised in a small town outside of Houston. He relocated when his uncle sent game footage to coaches at Banning High School in Los Angeles, his first stop in California.

He discussed replacing “a known Crip” as the starting fullback en route to becoming the state’s sophomore player of the year.

“I pretty much had keys to the school and tuition paid,” said Sparks, adding that he has had discussions with ESPN about a made-for-TV movie. “It was a turbulent time as a prized athlete.”

Sparks didn’t generate much interest from local schools, but his smooth, yet powerful running style garnered him attention on the national stage. SuperPrep Magazine ranked him as its No. 50 prospect in the Farwest, which encompassed Arizona, California, Oregon and Washington, in the 1991 Pre-Signing All-America issue.

He held offers from Arkansas, Colorado, Illinois, Miami and WSU.

WSU coach Mike Price hired running-backs coach Ted Williams, who previously coached at UCLA and developed a relationship with Sparks. Both he and his cousin signed with the Cougars.

“That kind of sealed the deal from me,” Sparks said. “I felt like Pullman was a good place for me.”

The 5-foot-11 running back gained 234 yards on 69 carries as a sophomore and was expected to replace Shaumbe Wright-Fair in 1993. But Sparks missed that season after an initial operation on his left shoulder revealed extensive damage.

“My college career wasn’t quite what I wanted because of injuries,” said Sparks, who retired from football when he injured his right knee in training camp with the San Francisco 49ers. “But I always tell these guys that you have to make sure you prepare yourself to do something else.”

Sparks did that after graduating from WSU, working with the Associated General Contractors Education Foundation and later at Olympic College.

Dr. Thomas Mosby, South Kitsap High School’s Career and Technical Education Department director, played football at Western Washington and later worked on Price’s staff when Sparks played for the Cougars.

“We interacted with him through a couple of different organizations and we saw the presence he commanded with students,” said Mosby, who also coached at Liberty High School in Renton for four years. “They gravitated toward his message.”

Among them is South senior running back Robert Issa, who rushed for 242 yards in the Wolves’ opener against Kennewick at Qwest Field.

“It’s actually really cool to play for someone with all that experience,” Issa said. “We know he brings a lot of stuff we’ve never been taught before.”

Sparks has some advice when adolescents ask about his playing days and their own prospects.

“They turn on the TV and see John Madden and the glamour,” Sparks said. “Have a healthy reality about what you want to do. It’s tough trying to reach that pinnacle of sports.

"It’s OK to have that dream, but make sure you’re realistic and are willing to pay the price.”

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